RONAN – Gov. Steve Bullock has asked the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to declare natural disasters in Blaine and Lake counties.
In Blaine County in north-central Montana, the primary culprit was a Fourth of July storm that sent hail the size of golf balls pounding down on crops and equipment.
Here in Lake County, it’s drought.
Conditions are as bad or worse than most anyone can remember. Hay yields are at their lowest in the last 100 years, according to Lake County extension agent Jack Stivers.
“I know for a fact a lot of producers have liquidated portions of their herds,” Stivers says. “If you can’t feed them, and you can’t find pasture, you’ve got to sell.”
A natural disaster designation by the Department of Agriculture will open paths to financial assistance to producers impacted by the drought. That often comes in the form of low-interest loans and preferential treatment by the IRS on capital gains, according to Ed Daugherty, executive director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Lake County.
“The last time I researched it, rivers were at 100-year lows – pretty much the lowest on record,” Daugherty says. “Anecdotally, in dry land up here, spring wheat yields were terrible. Hay’s been the same story. If it’s not irrigated it’s 20 to 25 percent of normal.”
And irrigators have had their deliveries shut down at points because there isn’t enough water in the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project to go around. For instance, deliveries from the Pablo Reservoir were shut down last Monday, for the third time this summer.
“Discharges could not continue because the reservoir had reached absolute minimum pool,” the project leaders told irrigators.
The weather responsible for all this started early and hasn’t cooperated since, dragging more than drought into the picture.
“In March we had the early snowmelt,” Stivers says. “That reduced the irrigation available, and the amount used started early too.”
April and May brought late freezes and frost that damaged and delayed crops.
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Then June, normally a rainy month, instead delivered blistering heat and days where temperatures exceeded 100 degrees.
“That extreme heat stressed crops,” Stivers says, “and also put extraordinary demand on irrigation waters.”
Stivers says there were also abnormal winds that further dried things out. If that weren’t enough, there was a large grasshopper outbreak in parts of the county as well.
“So you’ve got drought and pestilence,” Stivers says. “That’s compounded the situation.”
“Most all reservoirs across the Mission Valley are at minimum storage levels,” the irrigation project leaders stated earlier this week. “Current storage is only 7 percent of capacity. … All water users are again cautioned that there may not be water available for stock water and many laterals and ditches will be dry.”
Stivers says the process for Bullock’s request to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to declare a natural disaster in Lake County began at the county level on July 21. Such requests must originate with county commissioners.
The governor noted precipitation in Lake County has been 40 to 45 percent of normal.
According to Daughterty, some producers are already eligible for help from the Livestock Forage Disaster Program, part of the 2014 Farm Bill.
“It’s based on drought monitoring,” Daugherty says. “We’ve been at D3 (extreme drought) since July 7, at least eight weeks now.”
Ranchers have been pulling cattle off summer pastures for a good month now because of the conditions, Daugherty says.
“They’d normally keep them there till mid-October or into November,” he says, “but they’re already out of grass. They’re either grazing their fall fields already or buying hay. I’ve been here for 18 years, and it’s the worst I’ve seen it.”